Zitter JN, Mazonson PD, Miller DP, Hulley SB, Balmes JR. Aircraft Cabin Air Recirculation and Symptoms of the Common Cold. JAMA. 2002;288(4):483–486. doi:10.1001/jama.288.4.483
Author Affiliations: Departments of Medicine (Drs Zitter and Balmes) and Epidemiology and Biostatistics (Dr Hulley), University of California, San Francisco; and The Lewin Group, San Francisco, Calif (Dr Mazonson and Mr Miller).
Context In recent years, new commercial aircraft have been designed to recirculate
approximately 50% of the cabin air to increase fuel efficiency. Some older
aircraft use only fresh air. Whether air recirculation increases the transmission
of infectious disease is unknown; some studies have demonstrated higher rates
of the common cold among persons working in buildings that recirculate air.
Objective To evaluate the role of air recirculation as a predictor of postflight
upper respiratory tract infections (URIs).
Design, Setting, and Participants A natural experiment conducted among 1100 passengers departing the San
Francisco Bay area in California and traveling to Denver, Colo, during January
through early April 1999, and who completed a questionnaire in the boarding
area and a follow-up telephone interview 5 to 7 days later. Forty-seven percent
traveled aboard airplanes using 100% fresh air for ventilation, and 53% traveled
aboard aircraft that recirculated cabin air.
Main Outcome Measure Incidence of reporting new URI symptoms within 1 week of the flight.
Results Passengers on airplanes that did and did not recirculate air had similar
rates of postflight respiratory symptoms. The rates of reporting a cold were
19% vs 21% (P = .34); a runny nose and a cold, 10%
vs 11%, (P = .70); and an aggregation of 8 URI symptoms,
3% in both groups (P>.99). Results were similar after
statistical adjustment for potential confounders.
Conclusion We found no evidence that aircraft cabin air recirculation increases
the risk for URI symptoms in passengers traveling aboard commercial jets.
Aircraft cabins may be high-risk environments for transmission of infectious
diseases. Space confinement,1 limited ventilation,2,3 prolonged exposure times, and recirculating
air,4 all common to air travel, have been demonstrated
to be risk factors for transmission of upper respiratory tract infections
(URIs) in other settings. Several case reports detail outbreaks of influenza
and tuberculosis aboard aircraft,5- 9
but it is not known whether air recirculation increased rates of transmission.
Air recirculation increases rates of transmission of viruses that cause the
common cold in army barracks,4 but this possibility
has not been studied in airplanes.
In the early 1980s, to enhance fuel efficiency, aircraft manufacturers
began to build ventilation systems that recirculated cabin air. Older systems
used 100% fresh air, compressed, humidified, and cooled by the engines in
a process that consumed significant energy. Newer airplane models recirculate
as much as 50% of cabin air, decreasing the engine's work. The recirculated
air passes through high-efficiency particulate filters before mixing with
conditioned fresh air to reenter the passenger compartment. However, any filter's
ability to capture viruses is limited, even at peak function, and filters
are rendered even less effective if bypassed, improperly used, or clogged
by particulate matter.3,10
Older aircraft that use only fresh air are being retired, and all new
commercial aircraft are equipped to recirculate air. An evaluation of the
differences between the effects of these 2 ventilation systems must be conducted
before fresh air systems become obsolete. Our study aim was to evaluate the
role of air recirculation as a predictor of postflight symptoms consistent
From January through early April 1999, we recruited subjects who were
in designated passenger boarding areas at the San Francisco and Oakland, Calif,
airports and who were en route to Denver, Colo. To sample evenly between airplanes
that used fresh and recirculated air, as well as to control for differences
in aircraft, we targeted only certain airplane models. Boeing 737s and Boeing
727s have similar seating arrangements, cabin setup, seat density and pitch,
cabin airflow patterns, and fuselage size, but 737s recirculate approximately
50% of the cabin air, whereas 727s use 100% fresh air. We also targeted flights
using DC-10 models, equally sampling airplanes that used fresh and recirculated
air. This information was provided to us by the participating airline.
To meet the inclusion criteria, subjects had to be 18 years or older,
English speaking, willing to complete a brief questionnaire in the boarding
area, and willing to complete a follow-up telephone questionnaire 5 to 7 days
after the initial contact. They could not have engaged in air travel during
the previous week (including a connecting flight on the interview day), have
plans for additional air travel before the follow-up interview, or have a
cold when the initial questionnaire was distributed. We attempted to recruit
everyone who met our inclusion criteria in the boarding area during the hour
before the flight. Participation implied consent, as approved for our study
by the University of California, San Francisco, Committee on Human Research.
A questionnaire collecting data on behaviors thought to be associated with
URIs was then administered to willing and eligible participants in the boarding
areas of these targeted flights. In an attempt to minimize bias, research
assistants obtained information about the airplane model at the end of the
preboarding recruitment period.
Follow-up of passengers in the Denver area occurred by telephone 5 to
7 days after the initial contact. This second questionnaire investigated possible
URI symptoms during the week after the flight and subjects' knowledge and
beliefs regarding the practice of air recirculation and the risk of URIs during
air travel. To minimize bias, a separate group of research assistants who
conducted the follow-up telephone interviews was blinded to aircraft type.
We assessed symptoms that suggested the presence of a URI by using the
questionnaire developed by Jackson et al.11
The least restrictive definition was self-report of a cold. The next most
restrictive definition was the self-report of a cold and a runny nose, which
is highly correlated with a clinical diagnosis of URI.11
The most restrictive definition of URI was a Jackson score11
(consisting of the sum of 8 respiratory symptoms, including headache, sneezing,
chilliness, sore throat, malaise, nasal discharge, nasal obstruction, and
cough, each measured from 0 to 3) that was higher than 13.
Most data are presented as simple percentages of nonmissing data. For
some variables, data were missing for up to 30 passengers. Incidence of follow-up
URI symptoms according to the 3 definitions was calculated for the 2 study
groups: passengers on airplanes with partially recirculated air ventilation
and those on airplanes with fresh-air ventilation. We used generalized estimating
equations to examine the possibility that passengers on the same flight had
unmeasured common exposures and were not completely independent.12
The generalized estimating equations analysis estimated an interpassenger
within-flight correlation of 0.02, which was not significantly different from
zero. Therefore, simpler logistic regression models were used for most of
the analysis. Dummy variables for flight week were used, and models were fit
by using SAS PROC LOGISTIC and PROC GENMOD statistical software, version 8.1
(SAS Institute Inc, Cary, NC). We set statistical significance at P≤.05.
Of those approached who qualified for the study, more than 90% agreed
to participate. We enrolled 1501 participants and collected follow-up data
on 1100 subjects (73% response rate). Respondents resembled nonrespondents,
except the latter tended to have less child contact and to have been enrolled
during February. Of the 401 nonrespondents, 337 (84%) were not reachable because
of a lack of response to calls or incorrect contact information. The other
64 (16%) were disqualified from the study for having been inadequately screened
on entry. A total of 516 (47%) of the 1100 respondents traveled aboard airplanes
with fresh-air ventilation and 584 (53%) on airplanes with recirculated-air
ventilation. There were 196 passengers on DC-10s and 904 on 727 or 737 models.
Of the 250 flights we studied, 114 (46%) used fresh-air ventilation systems,
whereas the rest used recirculated air systems.
Table 1 compares the baseline
characteristics of subjects flying on aircraft that recirculated cabin air
with those flying on aircraft that used fresh-air ventilation. Subjects aboard
airplanes that recirculated air were more likely to have sinus problems, to
be older than 40 years, to be in first class, to have flown during March or
April, and to have flown out of Oakland rather than San Francisco. Passenger
density was not significantly different between aircraft types.
We performed univariate analyses of a variety of potential risk factors
for the 3 definitions of URI symptoms to assess possible confounding. All
3 definitions were associated with having chronic URI symptoms, such as allergies,
sinus problems, or asthma. Being female was predictive of the outcome of self-reported
cold. Believing that air travel increases the risk of URI was not predictive
of any of the 3 URI outcome measures.
We compared proportions of the 3 URI-symptom outcomes among passengers
flying on airplanes with fresh-air and recirculated-air ventilation, without
adjustment for group differences. There were no significant differences for
any of the outcomes. Self-reported colds occurred in 21% of passengers in
airplanes with fresh air and 19% of passengers in airplanes with recirculated
air (P = .34). Self-reported colds and a runny nose
occurred in 11% and 10% of these passengers, respectively (P = .70). Jackson scores higher than 13 occurred in 3% of both groups
We looked at odds ratios and 95% confidence intervals (CIs) for the
3 outcomes according to a multiple logistic regression analysis that included
recirculation as a risk factor for postflight subjective cold and controlled
for potential confounding variables that were not balanced in Table 1. These adjustments did not alter the finding that cabin
air recirculation was not a risk factor for developing the symptoms of a cold
during the week after flight (Table 2).
We designed a natural experiment to compare outcomes for passengers
flying on airplanes that used 100% fresh air vs airplanes that recirculated
a substantial fraction of cabin air. The aircraft we selected were similar
and flew identical routes. Since most passengers are unaware of whether a
particular airplane recirculates or does not recirculate air when they make
flight arrangements, the findings from this natural experiment resemble what
would be found in a blinded clinical trial. Recirculation of cabin air did
not emerge as a risk factor for the development of URI symptoms in our study.
This finding assuages concerns regarding the risk of infectious diseases in
recirculated cabin air13- 15
and suggests that if there is a substantial increased risk of URI among flyers,
the main route for transmission is not air recirculation.
There are, however, several limitations to this study. First, the study's
size was limited, and the CIs reveal the possibility of having missed a modest
effect. Second, the intergroup differences in some baseline variables were
greater than expected. People aboard airplanes that recirculated cabin air
were more likely to be older and have a history of sinus problems, characteristics
that might make them more likely to report colds after flights.16
They were also more likely to have flown in March or April than in January
or February and from Oakland rather than San Francisco. These differences,
which reflect the fact that the unit of study was the airplane rather than
the individual and that the type of airplane was not randomly allocated, did
not alter the findings of the study, judging by statistical adjustment for
the confounders and their clustering.
Another issue is the possibility of a dose-dependent effect of air recirculation
that would become evident on flights that were longer than 2 hours. We were
unable to study a longer flight primarily because older airplanes that do
not recirculate air are used almost exclusively on shorter routes.
The high incidence of subjectively reported postflight symptoms of URI
in both groups may be in part due to a travel effect involving factors such
as stress, sleep loss, crowding, and poor eating, which were not controlled
for with this study design. The attack rate according to the most restrictive
definition of URI symptoms (a Jackson score >13) revealed rates on the order
of 3%, which are consistent with those of previous epidemiologic studies of
URI incidence in people who were not traveling by airplane.17- 19
However, the Jackson questionnaire is a relatively nonspecific indicator of
infection. In one study,19 only 40% of patients
with clinical URIs by Jackson criteria had positive cultures by viral isolation
and cell culture. Therefore, another limitation to this study was an inability
to distinguish between true infection and nonviral causes of URI symptoms,
such as barometric sinusitis, nasal irritation, and vasomotor rhinitis.
There are several unique aspects of this study. The natural experiment
design takes advantage of passengers' lack of awareness of the air mixture
used in different aircraft to replicate a blinded study. This study design
would be difficult to duplicate. Airplanes with fresh-air ventilation systems
have been retired from most major airline fleets, especially on longer flights,
since the time of the study. Given recent events, gate access and airline
participation would be difficult to obtain. We believe that this study was
completed during a window of opportunity that is now largely gone.
In summary, we found no difference in the likelihood of self-reported
cold symptoms during the week after flight when comparing passengers traveling
aboard aircraft using 100% fresh air with those traveling aboard aircraft
that recirculate up to 50% of cabin air. It is encouraging that the now-widespread,
fuel-efficient practice of air recirculation does not seem to increase the
risk of transmission of URIs aboard aircraft on a 2-hour flight.